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Odd Lots

Odd Lots

  • Verizon refuses to stop using tower-side cookies (which can’t be deleted by mobile device users) even as AT&T has caved on the issue. The solution is to stop using Verizon. That’s what Carol and I are about to do.
  • Relax. Microsoft did not pull the plug on Win7 updates on 1/13. That won’t happen until 2020. What’s going away are new OS features and phone support, two things I don’t think the world desperately needs.
  • I like molten lava as much as the next guy. (Just wait until you read my novella Firejammer, coming out–finally–this spring.) That said, I’m not sure I like it quite this much…
  • With January only half over, the Great Lakes ice cover is now up to 34%. Lake Erie has pretty much iced over completely.
  • Britain’s Royal Society has published some evidence that people born during solar maxima do not live as long as people born during solar minima. It may be folate depletion by UV. Or something else. However, the correlation appears to be real. (Thanks to Neil Rest for the link.) Carol and I are solar minima babies, whew.
  • Discovered two very good red wines recently: Menage a Trois Red, and Menage a Trois Midnight. Both are dry reds, both are fruit-forward, and (in contradiction of the vintner’s Web writeups) neither has any detectable oak. I guess if you’re going to get the hipster market you have to claim oak, even if you lie about it. In this case, nothing of value was lost.
  • I doubt that my readers are dumb enough to think you can lose weight by ingesting chemistry sets like Slim-Fast. But just in case, read what Tom Naughton says about recent diet rankings in content-free publications like US News. Hint: The same doofi who bleat endlessly against “processed foods” (which now means “any foods I don’t like”) are endorsing fructose cocktails like Slim-Fast over Atkins and paleo.
  • Popular Mechanics lists the 14 best cities in America for startups. None are in Silicon Valley, and all are in relatively low-cost areas. Maybe hipster city cachet is finally starting to lose its cachet. Or so we can hope.
  • Lots has happened in CPU architectures since the 1980s, when a lot of us learned it. (I started a little earlier, but the IBM PC brought most of us to a new starting gate at the same time.) Here’s a decent summary. One consequence of all this is that human-written assembly language is less of a win over compilers, and the best reason to learn assembly these days is to understand what your damned compilers are up to in there.
  • Before he broke into the SF business, Keith Laumer was an ace model airplane designer. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
  • Physically small, fanless PCs have been around for awhile, and I was bullish on them until I began using Dell USFF (ultra-small form factor) machines like the Optiplex 780, which are pretty small and almost entirely silent. Should we settle for 1.6 GHz? Only if there’s a specific application in mind, like education (think RPi) or embeddedness.
  • Bill Cherepy sends us news of a thermostatic butter keeper that can keep a stick of butter (block? It’s a form factor we don’t make in the US) at any arbitrary temp from 15 to 23 degrees C. Butter is definitely coming back into its own, bravo halleluia!

Odd Lots

  • Yes, I changed my mind and signed up for Twitter, after pondering somebody else using my name and creating a Fake Jeff Duntemann. (Thanks to Bob Fergert for prompting me to imagine the unimaginable–and I’m a good imaginer.) More on this a little later. I have yet to post anything due to lots of top-priority projects here, but I’ll get to it within the week.
  • Dietary saturated fat is not related to plasma fatty acids. In other words, it doesn’t matter how much saturated fat you eat; your blood levels of fatty acids are controlled by other factors. What other factors? Care to guess? Are you reading this on Contrapositive Diary? Is the Pope from Argentina? Is the atomic weight of ytterbium 173.04? It’s the carbs. Wow. Whodathunkit? (Thanks to Jonathan O’Neal, who was the first of several to put me on the scent.)
  • There is actually a prize for the worst sex scene in literary fiction. It is not a coveted award, and I guess is seen as a sort of booby prize among literary writers. The WSJ recently posted a brief guide on how to avoid writing such scenes. (I avoid writing really bad sex scenes by not writing sex scenes at all. Works amazingly well.)
  • Two people in my circles who don’t know one another have independently recommended Ting as a cell carrier. First impression: Sounds too good to be true, and sheesh, they were created by Tucows. (That said, Tucows is no longer what most of us grayhairs remember it being.) Any other opinions? Getting new phones and a new carrier is my next big tech research project.
  • I’d also like to hear some early impressions of Lollipop, if anybody’s got it or is about to get it.
  • Here’s something you don’t see every day; in fact, I don’t think I’ve seen it even once, ever: A square flat-panel monitor, with a 1920 X 1920 resolution. Assuming these survive their launch (not a sure thing by any means) I’d be sorely tempted. As the story says, “Enough of the ultra wideness already.”
  • I wasn’t sure whether good technical books could be created as reflowable ebooks, but Yury Magda is doing it. He has five self-published Arduino-related titles now, and what I can see in the samples looks damned good. I’m going to buy a couple, less for the Arduino content as for how he does the layout. (Thanks to Jim Strickland for putting me on to this.)
  • Gizmodo/Sploid has a very nice short item on the XB-70 Valkyrie, certainly the most beautiful and possibly the second-scariest military aircraft ever built. Do watch the video of how the second prototype crashed–and if you’re ever within striking distance of Dayton, don’t miss the other Valkyrie at the Air Force museum there. (Thanks to Bruce Baker for the link.)
  • Barðarbunga is emitting over twice as much sufur dioxide every day as all of Europe’s smokestacks put together, and the volcano is still hard at it. SO2 is well-known to be a powerful cooling factor in the atmosphere. Combine that with a quiet Sun, and nobody really knows what might happen.
  • Best video illustration of how tumbler locks work that I’ve ever seen.
  • For that special, short, hairy, ironic someone in your life: You can get a genuine Flying Nun-inspired Weta-made Bofur winter hat, shipped all the way from New Zealand. Not cheap and not sure if it’ll arrive before Christmas, but if this winter keeps going like it’s going, you’ll be all set to face dragons, ice ages, or both.

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

  • Lenin’s head is missing. It was last seen rolling around a forest near Berlin 23 years ago, but nobody can find it now, even though it weighs three and a half tons. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
  • Evidently Lenin loses his head a lot. Somehow that doesn’t surprise me. Shame it didn’t happen in 1890 or so.
  • How far does $100 go in your state? (Backstory here.) Be careful; the figures are state-wide averages. It’s much worse in urban cores. (Thanks to Tony Kyle for the link.)
  • If you’ve never seen one, here’s an ad-farm article. I’ve often wondered if these are machine generated, written by people who don’t know English well, or machine-obfuscated copies of legitimate articles, intended to duck news providers’ plagiarism bots.
  • Wired volcanologist Eric Klemetti reports that a swarm of small earthquakes may presage an eruption from Iceland’s Barðarbunga volcano. The volcano is interesting because its name contains the ancient letter eth (ð) something I don’t recall seeing on Web news sites in a lot of years. To generate an eth on Windows, by the way, just enter Alt-0240.
  • Wired misses as often as it hits. One of its supposed futurists is telling us that the educated elite should be able to license reproduction, and dictate who can and who cannot have babies. By the way, his description of who is unfit to reproduce sounds a lot like the nonwhite urban poor. Articles of this sort are about as wise as “The Case for Killing Granny,” which put Newsweek in a world of hurt back in 2009.
  • To make you love this guy even more, let me quote a summary of presentation he did on Red Ice Radio: “Zoltan argues that ultimately technology will be helpful to the ‘greater good’ and must be implemented, even if by force and even if there are causalities along the way. In the second hour, Zoltan philosophizes about technology as evolution and luck as the prime mover of the human experience. He talks about maximizing on the transhumanist value for the evolution of our species. We parallel transhumanism with religious thinking. He’ll speak in favor of controversial subjects such as a transhumanist dictatorship, population control, licenses to have children and people needing to justify their existence in front of a committee, much like the Fabian Socialist George Bernard Shaw’s idea.” If I were a transhumanist, I’d be ripping him several new ones right now. Or is transhumanism really that nasty?
  • Nobel laureate physicist Frank Wilczek is not proposing thiotimoline, nor anything else (I think) having to do with time travel. He believes that he’s broken the temporal symmetry of nature…which sounds devilish and full of interesting possibilities. As soon as I figure out what the hell it all means, time crystals will land in one of my hard SF concepts in -5 milliseconds.
  • Michael Covington reminded us on Facebook that there are a surprising number of plurals with no singular form, including kudos, biceps, suds, and shenanigans. (I do wonder, as does Bill Lindley, if the very last bubble in the sink is a sud.)
  • That discussion in turn reminded me of a concept for an END piece in PC Techniques that I took notes on but never wrote: the KUDOS operating system, which lacks error messages but pays you a compliment every time you do anything right. In 1992 I was thinking of purely textual compliments, but these days I imagine a spell-checker that plays “Bravo!” on the speakers every time you spell a word correctly. Wouldn’t that be fun?

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

Doubt and the Scientific Method

This took me by surprise: Over in that global laboratory of abnormal psychology that most of us call Facebook, a man I’ve know for almost 35 years grew furious at me. My crime? A longstanding contention of mine that doubt lies at the heart of the scientific method. Note well that we were not talking about Issues. Not evolution, not climate, not even the Paleo Diet. None of that had even come up. No: We were talking about the scientific method itself.

I’ve seen this weird “doubt undermines science” business come up before, though never directed at me personally. Nonsense, of course. Doubt really does lie at the heart of the scientific method. This is not some opinion of mine that I pulled out of thin air. Hey, if somebody wants to start a new game show called “Are You Smarter Than Karl Popper?” I can recommend the first season’s contestants.

Here’s my understanding: The scientific method requires a trigger, and that trigger is doubt. Some smart guy or gal looks at something we think we know, often but not always after examining a pile of new data, and says, “This smells fishy. Let’s take a closer look and see what we can learn.” That initial insight leads to hypothesis, experiment, repeatable results, and eventually (one would hope) new or corrected knowledge. Absent doubt, nobody thinks anything smells fishy, no closer look happens, and whatever booboo might be in there somewhere never comes to light. Without doubt, there is no science.

It’s pretty much that simple.

So how do we explain my excoriation for stating the obvious? I have a theory, heh. It involves those idiotic Facebook memes that set religion against science. Some are worse than others; my personal antifavorite is the one that reads, “Religion flies aircraft into buildings. Science flies spacecraft to the Moon.” Gosh, was it the Episcopalians? And did engineering maybe have a role? Let it pass; there are plenty more. What they represent is tribal chest-thumping by people who want to replace religion with science. That sounds fishy to me. I probed a little and began to get a suspicion that what the chest-thumpers really want is the certainty of religion under a new name.

What tipped me off is the fact that the chest-thumpers were always talking about scientific knowledge, but never the scientific method. The reason is pretty simple: The scientific method is the single most subversive system of thought that humanity has ever created. Nothing that we know (or think we know) is safe from the scientific method. Not even physical laws. Back in the 1950s there was a physical law called the Law of Parity, holding that nature does not differentiate left from right at the subtomic level. Some physicists thought the Law of Parity smelled fishy. They put their heads together, came up with some truly brilliant experiments, and snick! They nailed the Law of Parity through an eye socket. They nailed it because they doubted it. And we’re not talking the Paleo Diet here. We’re talking a law of physics.

That scares people with a strong craving for certainty. At this point we need to talk a little bit about the religious impulse. Note well that I am not talking about religion itself here. I’m talking about the primal hunger for certain things that religion provides. The two biggies are meaning and certainty. (Belonging is a third biggie, but I feel that religion inherits the hunger for belonging from its primal sibling, the tribal impulse. I’ll have to take that up another time.) As anyone who’s read Viktor Frankl has learned, “meaning” is an important but slippery business. I’ve thought about it a lot, and it looks to me like the meaning we see in our lives grows out of order. There is huge comfort in living lives that follow a predictable template. We all imagine lives lived reliably in a certain way. We do not imagine chaotic lives, and generally avoid chaos when we can. (We may grumble about the template we’re currently living, but what we want is a better template, not chaos.) When chaos strikes, our lives can quickly move from meaningful to meaningless. A need for certainty follows from the need for order. We want to be certain that we’ve chosen a path that leads toward meaning. As often as not, this means choosing templates that work for us and embracing them without doubt. Some people take this too far, and become reactionaries or fanatics who insist that the templates they’ve discovered are the only ones that anyone should embrace. Alas, this is where the religious impulse gets tangled up in the tribal impulse, which, unimpeded by laws or cultural norms, gallops straight toward genocide.

Religion satisfies the religious impulse by providing us with wisdom narratives that suggest life templates, calendars of rituals and festivals that repeat down the years and reinforce a sense of the orderly passing of time, and saints as heroes whose very meaningful lives may be emulated. (I hope my religious friends will relax a little here and look closely at what I’m saying: I am not denying that God is behind religion. I’m suggesting the mechanisms by which God gets our attention and calls us home.)

What’s happening in our secular era is that religion is becoming less prevalent and (in our own culture, at least) less strident. People who feel the religious impulse strongly need to get their meaning (via order) and certainty somewhere else. Science is handy. Science makes for bad religion, however, because it creates its own heretics and subverts its own wisdom narratives. It creates disorder via doubt, in the cause of creating new order that more accurately reflects physical reality. Certainty in science is always tentative: What the scientific method gives, the scientific method can take away.

This makes people of certain psychologies batshit nuts.

I’ll leave it there for now. I’m something of an anomaly, in that my need for order doesn’t march in lockstep with any need for certainty. I’m an empiricist. I’ve created an orderly and meaningful life that works for me, but when circumstances require change, I grit my teeth and embrace the change. Incremental change is one way to avoid chaos, after all: Deal with it a little at a time, and you won’t have to deal with an earthquake later on.

In a sense, I live my life by the scientific method. Sometimes I doubt that that what I’m doing is the right thing for me. I stop, think about it, and often discover a better way. Doubt keeps pointing me in the right direction, as it does for science. Certainty, well…that points in the opposite direction, toward brittleness and chaos. Science doesn’t go there. None of us should either.

Odd Lots

  • Our new concrete gets its sealer coat tomorrow, and once it dries it’ll be (finally!) done. I’ll post a photo. So far we think it’s gorgeous.
  • This article has been shared again and again and again on Facebook, and it caught my attention because it echoes something I wrote about in 2009: That because our stuff is lasting longer, we need less stuff, be it forks or cars. And the cars are piling up…or are they? Alas, the article is nonsense (it did smell a little funny to me) and here’s the point-by-point takedown.
  • Here’s the best detailed article on bacteriophage therapy I’ve seen in quite awhile. It’s a hard read, but a good one. Sooner or later, as antibiotics fail us one by one, we’re going to have to go this way. (Phages look very cool, as well.)
  • The scientific method wins again: We thought we knew the physics behind same-material static electricity. We were wrong. Doubt really does lie at the very heart of science, in that if we don’t doubt what we think we know, we have no chance of finding our mistakes.
  • Now that eggs aren’t evil anymore, it’s worth exploring all the various ways to prepare them. If you like hard-boiled eggs, here’s the best explanation I’ve seen of how to boil them so that they’ll peel easily and without divots.
  • Adobe’s Creative Cloud was down for some time. The issue’s been resolved, but it just confirms my ancient suspicion that putting everything on the cloud is a really bad idea. If I can’t access my software, I can’t work. Pretty much end of story.
  • Blue light keeps you awake. Staying awake shortens your life. So as the day winds down, Turn the Damned Thing Off. Then read a book until you’re sleepy. I recommend any substantial history book, with a special nod to histories of the Byzantine Empire. (Thanks to Dermot Dobson for the link.)
  • This is the company that makes the machines that play the songs on ice cream trucks. Or at least the ones in the UK.